Space Warfare
Combat Outside of Earth's Atmosphere

Space Warfare
Combat Outside of Earth's Atmosphere

In the late 1970s and through the 1980s the Soviet Union and the United States theorized, designed and in some cases even tested an astonishing variety of bizarre and exotic weaponry designed for warfare in outer space.

Space warfare was seen primarily as an extension of nuclear warfare, and so many theoretical systems were based around the destruction or defense of ground and sea-based missiles.

Space-based missiles were not a target due to the Outer Space Treaty, which banned the use, testing or storage of nuclear weapons outside the Earth's atmosphere.

A look at military concepts to weaponize space; how such systems would work and how effective would they be, such as an idea of telephone pole-sized rods that could be hurtled down from orbit.

Also a look at some more fantastic weapon ideas and defenses against such weapons, such as ground base lasers.

Space warfare is combat that takes place in outer space, i.e. outside the atmosphere.

Space warfare therefore includes ground-to-space warfare, such as attacking satellites from the Earth, as well as space-to-space warfare, such as satellites attacking satellites.

It does not include the use of satellites for espionage, surveillance, or military communications, however useful those activities might be.

It does not technically include space-to-ground warfare, where orbital objects attack ground, sea or air targets directly, but the public and media frequently use the term to include any conflict which includes space as a theater of operations, regardless of the intended target.

For example, a rapid delivery system in which troops are deployed from orbit might be described as "space warfare," even though the military uses the term as described above.

A film was produced by the U.S. Military in the early 1960s called Space and National Security which depicted space warfare.

From 1985 to 2002 there was a United States Space Command, which in 2002 merged with the United States Strategic Command.

There is a Russian Space Force, which was established on August 10, 1992, and which became an independent section of the Russian military on June 1, 2001.

Only a few incidents of space warfare have occurred in world history, and all were training missions, as opposed to actions against real opposing forces.

In the mid-1980s a USAF pilot in an F-15 successfully shot down the P78-1, a communications satellite in a 345 mile (555 km) orbit.

In 2007 the People's Republic of China used a missile system to destroy one of its obsolete satellites, and in 2008 the United States similarly destroyed its malfunctioning satellite USA 193.

To date, there have been no human casualties resulting from conflict in space, nor has any ground target been successfully neutralized from orbit. International treaties governing space limit or regulate conflicts in space and limit the installation of weapon systems, especially nuclear weapons.

Prompt Global Strike (PGS) is a United States military effort to develop a system that can deliver a precision conventional weapon strike anywhere in the world within one hour just as an ICBM can do with a nuclear warhead.

Most of the world's communications systems rely heavily on the presence of satellites in orbit around Earth. Protecting these assets might seriously motivate nations dependent upon them to consider deploying more space-based weaponry, especially in conflicts involving advanced countries with access to space.

Even without the further militarization of space, a future conflict conducted largely on the ground through conventional means might well be sparked by actions conducted entirely in space.

Alternatively, the very threat of space warfare may be enough to put considerable pressure on the political system of a nation, such as the pressure which caused the formation of the Outer Space Treaty.

Relatedly, though no infrastructure or economic interests exist at the moment to warrant the occupation of terrain on other terrestrial bodies within the Solar system, or to occupy orbital trajectories in outer space, some futurists have predicted that should such infrastructure be deployed, space-faring nations may go to war for control of extra-planetary resources.

Such a conflict could easily involve warfare both within and outside the Earth's atmosphere. One suggested point of conflict is the helium-3 resources in the south polar region of the Moon. Russia has already stated its intention of developing this resource, and the Chinese lunar mission is scheduled to land in that area in 2024. However, the high abundance of this isotope would make war quite unlikely.

Project Thor

Project Thor is an idea for a weapons system that launches kinetic projectiles from Earth orbit to damage targets on the ground.

Jerry Pournelle originated the concept while working in operations research at Boeing in the 1950s before becoming a science-fiction writer.

The most described system is "an orbiting tungsten telephone pole with small fins and a computer in the back for guidance".

The weapon can be down-scaled, an orbiting "crowbar" rather than a pole. The system described in the 2003 United States Air Force (USAF) report was that of 20-foot-long (6.1 m), 1-foot-diameter (0.30 m) tungsten rods, that are satellite controlled, and have global strike capability, with impact speeds of Mach 10, and strike 25-foot accuracy.

The time between deorbiting and impact would only be a few minutes, and depending on the orbits and positions in the orbits, the system would have a world-wide range. There is no requirement to deploy missiles, aircraft or other vehicles.

Although the SALT II (1979) prohibited the deployment of orbital weapons of mass destruction, it did not prohibit the deployment of conventional weapons. The system is not prohibited by either the Outer Space Treaty nor the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

A kinetic bombardment is the act of attacking a planetary surface with an inert projectile, where the destructive force comes from the kinetic energy of the projectile impacting at very high velocities.

The idea is that the weapon would inflict damage because it moves at orbital velocities, at least 9 kilometers per second.

Smaller weapons can deliver measured amounts of energy as small as a 225 kg conventional bomb. Some systems are quoted as having the yield of a small tactical nuclear bomb.

These designs are envisioned as the ultimate bunker busters. The highly elongated shape and high density are to enhance sectional density and therefore minimize kinetic energy loss due to air friction and maximize penetration of hard or buried targets.

The larger device is expected to be quite good at penetrating deeply buried bunkers and other command and control targets.

The smaller "crowbar" size might be employed for anti-armor, anti-aircraft, anti-satellite and possibly anti-personnel use.

The weapon would be very hard to defend against. It has a very high closing velocity and a small radar cross-section. Launch is difficult to detect.

Any infra-red launch signature occurs in orbit, at no fixed position. The infra-red launch signature also has a small magnitude compared to a ballistic missile launch.

One drawback of the system is that the weapon's sensors would almost certainly be blind during atmospheric reentry due to the plasma sheath that would develop ahead of it, so a mobile target could be difficult to hit if it performed any unexpected maneuvering.

The system would also have to cope with atmospheric heating from re-entry, which could melt the weapon. While the larger version might be individually launched, the smaller versions would be launched from "pods" or "carriers" that contained several missiles.

The phrase "Rods from God" is also used to describe the same concept. A USAF report called them "hypervelocity rod bundles".

Strategic Defense Initiative

The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was proposed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan on March 23, 1983 to use ground and space-based systems to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles.

The initiative focused on strategic defense rather than the prior strategic offense doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD).

The Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) was set up in 1984 within the United States Department of Defense to oversee the Strategic Defense Initiative.

The ambitious initiative was "widely criticized as being unrealistic, even unscientific" as well as for threatening to destabilize MAD and re-ignite "an offensive arms race".

It was soon derided as Star Wars, after the popular 1977 film by George Lucas. In 1987, the American Physical Society concluded that a global shield such as "Star Wars" was not only impossible with existing technology, but that ten more years of research was needed to learn whether it might ever be feasible.

Under the administration of President Bill Clinton in 1993, its name was changed to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) and its emphasis was shifted from national missile defense to theater missile defense; and its scope from global to more regional coverage.

It was never truly developed or deployed, though certain aspects of SDI research and technologies paved the way for some anti-ballistic missile systems of today. BMDO was renamed to the Missile Defense Agency in 2002. Space-related defense research and testing remains heavily-budgeted to this day, irrespective of the program names, operative/reporting organizations, politics, or reports to the contrary in the press.

Although it is difficult to compile actual spending totals across the complete spectrum of space-based defense programs (including classified "off-budget" "black projects"), the U.S. has certainly invested well over $100 billion on "SDI" and follow-on programs, and holds a commanding lead over all current or potential future adversaries in the realm of space technology/warfare.